Bjorn woke up this morning with what he thought was a mild hangover, but quickly within an hour, announced he had malaria. It comes on fast, especially when you’re in somewhat uncomfortable and hot surroundings. Naturally, the young paratrooper was keen to mock and inform Bjorn that he just can’t handle a few shots from the night before. However, with a temperature test and with the experience that all the guys have, we have taken shelter in the shade. Bjorn looks like he’s dying and if we didn’t know what to do, he just may. Of course, we have treatment and it isn’t uncommon to catch malaria nowadays. Living out here, all three of the guys have had it more than 55 times between them, and no, that isn’t a typo. All the chaps are yet to reach their 30th birthdays. If it is malaria, the drugs will take three days to clear Bjorn’s very familiar symptoms. Considering it only costs a few dollars, everyone here (all foreigners, at least, should) carry the medication. It’s available from any clinic, surgery, hospital or even chemist. It saves your life.
As Bjorn lies down under a tree the rest of us play some dice and hydrate. We take his temperature every 10 minutes. We supply him with water and set an alarm for him to make sure he takes his pills. It’s a fairly strict pill-poppin schedule for the next 72 hours. I haven’t had malaria, but it’s just a matter of time if I’m to spend a lot of time here. It’s as common as getting a cold, except it’s it can be lethal. The guys share their stories of malaria and they’ve all recovered to full health relatively quickly. However, they have all known someone close to them who hasn’t been so lucky. The worst stories are most definitely of the times they have fallen ill with it outside of Africa.
Malaria is a tropical disease and tropical countries are just better equipped. It is simply treated, but for some reason western countries panic when it shows up and they don’t always have the drugs quickly to hand. Charlie was even quarantined when he was taken ill with it in London. It isn’t contagious, but this just shows how inappropriate testing is and how unprepared countries are that they panic-respond to anything they aren’t familiar with. It makes me think that if we had such an issue with malaria in the west, that we would have an immunity injection already in place for our youth. However, because it isn’t a western illness as such, there just hasn’t been a hard enough focus to find an overwhelming preventative. Many believe that if there was a jab to resolve Africa of malaria, it would inevitably send the continent even further into turmoil (and I know that’s a very sweeping statement for more than 50 countries to be lumped with, but lets just make the same assumption that the media does on a daily basis – this continent is small, and everyone is a third world citizen. Malaria controls this population, and the world needs it). It’s a strong notion…but one to debate another time. Privilege and wealth disparity is most definitely evident around the world when we argue what access we have to medical aid. In this case however and as a result of visiting the birthplace of human kind; in response to the time when I do catch malaria – I’d rather be in Africa.
There is a two week gestation period following the culprit mosquito bite, so Bjorn was likely bitten on the weekend I arrived in the Cape Maclear. It’s also likely that we were both bitten by the same mosquito, seeing as we shared the same sleeping areas, vehicles, bar tables and beach. I’ll just have to hope my antimalarials work (although I only started taking them a couple of days after I arrived).
We really don’t want to sit in the bush for a day or two, especially if Bjorn get worse. He needs as much cooling and as much comfort as possible. Exercise isn’t a fabulous remedy for the temperature-raising affliction. For Bjorn’s energy-less journey out of the bush, we’ve had to construct a stretcher. He’ll have to be on his feet for short runs of the river hike and very steep sections of unsteady mud banks, but he really doesn’t have much choice. There is no helicopter to fly in, there is no phone signal to call the ambulance. There isn’t any help. We’re on our own. The only thing that’s going to keep him off his feet is if he gets punctured by a snake or scorpion on the walk. However, the absolute worst thing that could possibly happen now would be that he gets stung by a wasp or bee. Bjorn is allergic, and I’m not sure how the adrenaline mixed with malaria treatment, as well as his hugely high temperature would really go down. As a guess, not terribly well. Thankfully, it should only take a day at the most before we reach the lake, and Charlie’s lodge. It’s going to be a long walk in the middle of the day, but carrying Bjorn at night is not a great option. Two more days of recovery on the lakeshore and he should be slightly more comfortable. It’s unlikely he’ll want to eat much for a while so it’s rather important we become nurses for the next day or so. I’m obviously the hot foreign one, Matt’s the useless wheelchair pusher and Charlie is the Matron. Bjorn is in great hands!
Unfortunately trekking through the bush in the midday heat, even along the cooling river, does absolutely nothing to improve Bjorns condition. We rest as often as possible and get fluids into him (as well as ourselves). Sadly, attempting to hike through the bush with malaria on your back is just about the worst thing you can attempt to do when the one and only thing you must try and do is stay cool. If your temperature rises too much, it isn’t the malaria that you should worry about; you’re highly susceptible to brain damage. Hallucinating isn’t uncommon, so we’re obviously a little concerned that Bjorn stays cool and relaxed, as well as ‘with it’. If you think you have malaria, don’t go for a hike in the heat.
Don’t assume I’m taking this lightly. It is very unpleasant. It robs you of your energy for days and can easily drive you insane. Malaria kills a lot of people. In 2015 alone, of over 214 million cases of malaria worldwide were apparently reported. Numbers vary hugely, but it’s fair to say over 500,000 people died from it. Worryingly, even though we have a cure for most strains of malaria, it is deadlier than most cancers!
As much as we need to be aware of the horrors, it is also a way of losing a few pounds. You might expect everyone here to be living the healthy lifestyle; the sunshine, the fresh fruit and vegetables, the physical logistics of life and the lake for regular lovely swims. In reality, just like in any hot country I have been to, nearly everyone I have met chain smokes, drinks too much and is ecstatically happy when anything fresh on the market actually turns up. Many non-natives live on slightly old meat, a relatively stodgy diet with just a little more fresh produce than the locals – and we all know how lacking their diet is. Take it with a pinch of salt, but with so many cheap vices, malaria is one reason why so many ex-pats are relatively thin. Malaria a couple of times a year will undoubtedly shed a few pounds but in all honesty, it’s a pretty terrible way of losing weight. I jest about the illness, but it’s worth thinking about. As Bjorn’s energy is rapidly sucked from his body and brain, he is quickly resembling Skeletor with a tan.
We should have him back to base before the sun goes down. He’ll then just sweat it out, surviving on air and water while the drugs do their business and his appetitive is surprised to that of a fasting crocodile (google how often they eat). It’s a horrific status, and I’m lucky enough not to have had it yet. With hundreds of thousands of people dying here every year from simple things likes bug bites, dirty water, dysentery, the odd bit of bacteria, and essentially, lack of access to a cheap drug, it’s a stark reminder of just how EASY LIFE IS EVERYWHERE ELSE in the world. Perspective, once again is a wonderful thing.